Understanding The Cognitive Value of Searching v. Discovering (via The Jordan Rules)

Search engines have changed the way many people use the internet. Understanding the different cognitive rewards searching & discovering provide, can help you determine the most effective ways to deliver a message.

Definitions for this article:


Search (v.) – To enter a set of key words or phrases into a system that matches those keywords or phrases to a predefined index. This system will display a list of indexed items based on the search. (Example of system: Google)

Discover (v.) – To locate serendipitously or though exploration.

Essentially, searching requires asking for results & discovering requires that content be served without asking for it.

Effect on Evaluation


Search: Most search engines have advanced filtering & sorting built into the SERP (search engine results page) which allows users to remove or de-prioritize less relevant results. Within the SERP most search engines display a results list that’s easily scanable. This influences result evaluation by allowing users to scan through multiple result summaries, compare, and decide which result is the most relevant to them.


Discover: Users who discover things without searching, generally have a different expectation of content. Where a user that performs a search expects to optimize the relevancy of content; a user that discovers something, generally has lower expectations of the relevancy of content.

Evaluation of discovered content is generally more likely to be explored if perceived as being relevant. The inconsistent nature of discovered content tends to be the cause of increased exploration. (i.e. “I always know Google will be there, so I don’t feel like I need to explore a large number of links. If I stumble on an interesting link, I’d probably be more likely to click on it because I might not be certain of how to find it again.)

Conclusion: Analytical decision makers tend to use search; emotional decision makers tend to explore & discover. Note, these can be two mindsets of the same person. (i.e. analysis drives search, emotion drives exploration & discovery)

Effect on Consumption


Search: By default, search delivers more relevant content than discovery, at a time defined by the user.


Discover: Only content that’s perceived as being relevant to a user tends to be discovered. Because discovered content can appear anywhere at any time; a user needs to be sensitive to that content in order to discover it. (i.e. If I were reading an article about non-linear TV on the NY Times site & they provided a link to a video called “coolest bird bath”, I probably wouldn’t click on it. But if another user was reading the same article, and actually likes bird baths, they might click on it.)

Conclusion: Discovered content tends to be consumed immediately (or bookmarked immediately for later consumption) or ignored completely. Search is perceived as always available, making it easy to find relevant content anytime; therefore search tends to be used when specific content is required.


Effect on Participation


Search: Users who locate content through search tend to have a lower personal attachment to it than if the content was discovered. This lowered attachment puts onus on the content to engage the user to participate.


Discover: As alluded to, users who discover content tend to develop some level of personal attachment it. Three cognitive rewards contribute to this attachment: exclusivity, accomplishment, and satisfaction.

Exclusivity: The scarcity of ‘discoverable’ content provides users who find relevant discoverable content a sense of exclusivity. (i.e. it’s not something anyone can just find through Google)

Accomplishment: Leaving a users current experience to explore discoverable content can be rewarding when the content turns ends up being perceived as relevant.

Independence: Not having to rely on a search engine to serve up relevant content provides users with a sense of independence. Generally, this sense of independence is demonstrated through an increase in site exploration.

Conclusion: The personal attachment & cognitive rewards attained through discovery increases the potential for participation. However, highly engaging sites will see participation regardless of the referring site.


Effect on Conversion


Search:  Search engines return a list of prioritized pages based on keyword input. This list of pages allows users to find the MOST relevant page from a list of relevant pages. There are two behaviours that effect conversion: decision optimization & decision satisficing. Those users who want to make an optimized decision will explore multiple links and evaluate content before converting. Those users who make a satisficed decision will rely, primarily, on a sites page rank to convert.


Discover: Since users that discover content generally develop an emotional connection to the link being clicked on, and don’t have easy access to comparable pages, they tend to evaluate content and make a conversion decision quickly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that discovered content will convert users more often that searched content; it just means that discovered content will likely be evaluated on its merits alone, rather than a comparison of multiple sites.


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The Balloon Principle applied to discovery: A principle I’ve been working on for a while suggests that certain categories of decision require a minimum amount of information to be able to make the decision. If you think of a decision as a balloon & information as the air used to inflate the balloon; the larger the balloon gets the more useful it becomes. Discovered content can act like one of the first breaths of air inflating the decision balloon; only filling it up to a point where more air is needed to convert. This situation could cause a user to engage a search engine prior to making a conversion decision.

Conclusion: Search enables users to be more fickle than users who explore & discover.


Effect on Sharing


Search: Similar to its effect on participation, the effect of search on sharing involves the users’ perception of the ubiquitous nature of search. Since anyone can access search results anytime, users that find content through search are less likely to share in fear of sharing previously viewed content. This doesn’t mean that searched content will never be shared; simply that content accessed via search needs to be valuable enough to be perceived as sharable.

Discover: The serendipitous nature of discovery encourages users to share discovered content. There are 4 types of content that users tend to share:

1.    Fresh content – this type of content is more sharable because the newer the content, the less likely your audience having already seen it is.
2.    Valuable content – This type of content is not time specific; if it’s perceived as being of value, it’s more likely to be shared.
3.    Entertaining content – Content perceived to be entertaining to the end-user is also more likely to be shared.
4.    Novel content – Content that discusses a new topic, or illustrates a new perspective on a topic is also more likely to be shared.

Conclusion: Discovered content is more likely to be shared; however, content evaluation will still take place. If the barriers to sharing are removed, and the content fits in one (or more) of the 4 sharable categories; it is very likely that users will share that content.

In the end optimizing content for discovery (given the current state of the semantic web & cross-platform tagging systems) will likely deliver fewer visitors, but may deliver a higher quality of visitor. Additionally, those visitors that do discover your content are more likely to share it; increasing word-of-mouth awareness.

Search is obviously a valuable tool, and should be considered when creating any site; but the value of exploration & discovery should also be considered. Deciding between a search-dominant strategy and a discovery-dominant strategy falls to profiling your user & mapping desired user actions.



Discovery Optimization (EDO) – Like SEO (search engine optimization), exploration & discovery optimization requires some work and a certain way of thinking. I’ve created a set of guidelines for EDO & some rationalization for the counter-intuitive way of thinking. (Counter-intuitive to SEO)
In an effort to avoid unproductively long posts, I’ll post these guidelines & rationalization as a presentation on Sunday August 15, 2010.

I encourage comments & questions. Feel free to add a comment or ask a question – either on this blog, or reach out directly on Twitter @thejordanrules


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